Monday, August 29, 2022

Independent Candidates Say They Rejected Both Parties In Decision To Run For Oconee County School Board

***Made Comments In Video Recorded Interviews***

The two candidates running as Independents for the Oconee County School Board said the chair of the Oconee County Democratic Party was wrong in suggesting that the petition drive that put them on the November ballot was the work of the Democratic Party.

Both said that a large number of people were involved in soliciting signatures of voters on the petitions required for them to be on ballot, and that only about a quarter of the signature collectors were affiliated in some way with the Democratic Party.

The two said they emerged as candidates from a group of parents who wanted to see some changes in the Board of Education and that they decided from the very beginning to run as Independents, rather than as Democrats or Republicans.

Melissa Eagling, running for Post 3 on the Board, said she does not consider herself to be affiliated with either party.

Ryan Repetske, running for Post 2, said he would label himself as a Libertarian if he had to pick a party label.

Both acknowledged that some errors were made in collecting signatures on the petitions and said they were pleased with the verification process used by the county to certify the results.

Eagling and Repetske made these comments in brief, video recorded interviews last week that fell between the publication of dueling columns about their candidacies in The Oconee Enterprise by the chairs of the county Democratic and Republican parties.

Zoom Interviews

I asked Eagling and Repetske if they would be willing to schedule interviews with me after the column by Eric Gisler, chair of the Oconee County Democratic Party, appeared in the Aug. 18 edition of the Enterprise.

Gisler wrote that “The Board of Elections and Registration recommended that we gather 5 percent more signatures than the 1,425 required” and that “We actually submitted 15 percent more signatures than required.”

He signed the column as Chair of the Oconee County Democratic Committee.

This column was inconsistent with what I had reported in earlier blogs and what I told my neighbors when I solicited signatures on my own to get Eagling and Repetske on the ballot.

In early March, John Phillips, who had two children in Oconee County Schools at that time, told me that a group of parents had been meeting to find candidates to run in the Board of Education races.

Phillips, who has since moved with his family to Minneapolis, was one of a group of parents that filed open records requests each week to obtain school and grade level data on COVID-19 cases in Oconee County Schools.

Oconee County Schools released to the public only system-level data each Friday on the number of active cases in the schools overall at the end of the week and forced the group to file open records requests each week to obtain the detailed data.

That group of parents shared the data it obtained with me, and I reported some of those data on this blog.

Questions Posed

If what I had learned from Phillips was not consistent with what Eagling and Repetske reported, I wanted to correct the error in this blog and apologize to my neighbors.

Eagling agreed to schedule an interview with me via Zoom on Wednesday (Aug. 24), and Repetske agreed to meet with me on Zoom on Thursday (Aug. 25).

I asked each of them the same 15 scripted questions, in the same order.

I did not ask Eagling not to share the questions with Repetske, but Repetske gave no indication he knew what I was about to ask him when we did the interview.

In my first question, I asked each of the candidates about those early meetings that Phillips has reported to me.

I said I had been told that a woman from the group was considering running as a Republican, though, in the end, she did not do so, and that two people were considering running as Independents.

Eagling told me she was “one of the original people who had committed to running as an independent.”

Repetske On Decision

Repetske’s answer was more complicated.

“I don’t want to say backup, that has sort of a bad implication,” Repetske said of his decision. “But I had just sort of expressed interest.”

“I was like, if no one’s going to run, I would do it,” he continued.

“And they said, if you’re interested, we can have you on the short list,” he said.

“Within like a few hours, it became like a reality,” he added.

Repetske’s Elaboration

“I feel like I’m getting slammed by the Republican side, we’re getting taken credit for by the Democratic side,” he said. “Not like they’re grabbing for attention.”

“I was upset when Eric turned in the signature forms,” Repetske said. “It was important to maintain being Independent. I did think that kind of didn’t have a good look.”

Oconee County Director of Elections and Registration reported that “Both Eagling and Repetske turned in petitions via Eric Gisler” just before 10 a.m. on July 12. The deadline was noon that day.

“But I mean the Democrats don’t have a candidate,” Repetske said. “So they were interested in having, you know, supporting someone.”

“And most of our stuff really wasn’t done from a political point of view,” he continued.

“It was just a lot of concerned citizens in the community that wanted a change,” he said. “And its been Republicans, Democrats, people that aren’t even that involved politically, like myself, who I really don’t even strongly identify with one party or the other.”

Running As Independent: Eagling

Both Eagling and Repetske said they never considered running as either a Democrat or as a Republican.

“I strongly believe that the Board of Education should not be a partisan position at all,” Eagling said when I asked her why she decided to run as an Independent.

“I do not believe that any political agenda, no matter what it is, has a place in our school system,” she added.

“The role of the Board of Education is pretty specific in upholding the federal and state laws that are in place for school systems as well as to serve each student that is in the county schools,” she said.

“I really, personally, don’t think that politics has anything to do with those stated duties and objectives,” she said.

“I also am an independent person,” she continued. “When I vote, I take the time to research each candidate, especially in local races where your voice really does have an impact.”

“It is really important to understand the person, their values, their skills, who is going to serve best in that role,” Eagling said. “And I truly do identify that way and vote that way as well.”

“My decision to run as an independent in this race is both in line with my own opinions that politics don’t have a place in our schools and with my own individual operating system,” she said.

Running As Independent: Repetske

“A lot of these national political talking points don’t really have a place in our schools,” Repetske said when I asked him why he decided to run as an Independent.

“It should be nonpartisan,” he said.

“I get that some people say it let’s you know how people are going to lean, but it’s a school board,” Repetske said.

“We’re trying to do what’s best for the children and parents, teachers, administrators, everything,” he continued. “We just want to provide a good support for that regardless of the political affiliation.”

“And I definitely am not one to have a strong political affiliation anyway,” he added.

Polling Question

I asked both Eagling and Repetske how they would answer a hypothetical survey interviewer who asked their political affiliation.

Eagling said “I don’t identify with either party.” She said she would have answered the same way had she been asked a year ago.

“I’d probably say I’d be more of a Libertarian,” Repetske said. “I would not identify with either.”

“In years past I have voted with the Republican Party and then with Trump, he is very polarizing,” he said. “I do feel like the Republican Party kind of lost their way for me. And I did start gravitating toward Democrats.”

“I’m definitely not like strong like right-wing, but I’m definitely more Libertarian, just kind of down the middle on more things,” he said.

Repetske said he would have said the same thing a year ago.

“I’ve never really liked the two-party system, so I never really identified strongly with either one,” he said. “But I definitely would say I don’t feel as liberal as I did a year or two ago.”

Petition Drive

The Secretary of State Office is examining irregularities in the petition drive that put Eagling and Repetske on the November School Board ballot.

The problems identified were mostly husbands signing for wives and wives signing for husbands, Oconee County Board of Elections and Registration Rebecca Anglin said. This is not permitted. (Anglin stepped down on Friday to take a job with the Secretary of State Office.)

The Board of Elections voted to put Eagling and Repetske on the ballot after certifying that the required 1,425 signatures had been verified.

These petitions are the subject of the columns in the Enterprise on Aug. 18 by Gisler and a response by Kathy Hurley, chair of the Oconee County Republican Party, on Aug. 25.

I asked each of the candidates to comment on the petition drive and to indicate what role she or he had played.

“It is clear that some errors were made in obtaining some of the signatures,” I said to both Eagling and Repetske in a follow-up question. “What is your perspective on the petition process and those errors at this point?” I asked.

Eagling On Petition Drive

“Early on in the drive, we thought, Oh, this will be pretty easy to get this many signatures,” Eagling said. “And that turned out not really to be the case.”

“I think that certainly in today’s digital age, people just don’t get out to physically sign a piece of paper,” she continued. “That was a pretty high hurdle to get over.”

“As time went on, we had to re-evaluate,” she said. “What are some more methods for how we can really get in people’s physical presence? It’s not a matter of: sign this online petition.”

“There were like very, very specific criteria for singing the petition and doing it correctly that we had to comply with,” Eagling said.

“I collected some signatures of my own and then also reached out to close family and friends who collected signatures on my and on Ryan’s behalf,” she said. “So that was really my specific role.”

“I think that as time went on and we saw that, ok, we need more, there was more of an effort to be at the Farmer’s Market and be at Striplings and then also some efforts to do canvassing in neighborhoods and really get out and talk to individuals and the community,” Eagling said.

“There was over 40 individuals who ended up collecting signatures, and those people were across the board, like I said, friends and family of mine, friends and family of Ryan.”

“Other concerned individuals in the community who want to see some accountability in our Board of Education and want there to be more choices on the ballot and want there to be a conversation happening rather than just allowing the incumbents and people in the Republican Party to do as they see fit without any conversation or accountability happening,” Eagling said.

Eagling On Errors

“So there were lots of individuals, over 40 people, who rose to the occasion and said ‘Hey, I’m on board with this too and I’d like to see your name on the ballot in November,'” Eagling said.

In response to the problems with the petitions, Eagling, who is an attorney, said “First off, as an individual, my own integrity is something that I really hold very closely. It is something that is really important to me.”

“I’m thankful that there are checks and balances in place so that when and if there are issues, dishonesty or a fraud,” Eagling continued. “That there is a system in place to catch those things and that those signatures aren’t counted.”

“I don’t want those signatures to be counted,” she said. “So I’m glad that that process is in place. So I’m glad that the process works for that.”

Repetske On Petition Drive

“I had some friends and family sign some forms for me,” Repetske said in explaining his role in the petition drive. “I went to one of the Farmers Markets one time to help gather some signatures and kind of met people for the first time.”

“I really had only met people over like a Zoom call,” he said. “I think there were some Democrats and some Independent people there.”

“I wasn’t actively involved other than just getting a few signatures,” he continued. “I think it was like 30 or 40 people that were gathering signatures for us. Just kind of this group out of the community.”

“I felt kind of detached from it, but it was a pretty amazing group that they were willing to put that much effort in,” he said.

“The Democrats supported us because they didn’t have a candidate. They definitely want, or are hoping for, a little bit of change with something,” he said.

“There were many Republicans,” he said. “People just signed.”

“I know the saddest thing for me is when I go to the polls and I go to vote and all I have is incumbent. One choice. I think people need voting choices and options. I think other people felt that way too,” Repetske said.

Repetske On Errors

Repetske said that “Errors were expected” and that Elections and Registration Director Anglin and her staff “did a good job of vetting everything. I don’t feel like there was anything underhanded with it.”

“It was a frustrating process to begin with–that we had to get the 1,425 certified signatures just to be on a ballot because I didn’t want to be associated with a political party for something that should be nonpartisan, in my opinion.”

“We barely write anymore,” Repetske said. “It’s a lot to ask someone to stop and spend two minutes signing something.”

“It was frustrating when it came to a vote of a hunch that something wasn’t right,” Repetske said of the split vote on the Board of Elections and Registration. “Just because they didn’t want it to be.”

The Republican Party representative to the Board of Elections and Registration voted against accepting the petitions.

“I was excited that we got on the ballot,” Repetske said. “But, yea, the whole process was just kind of frustrating. I don’t really feel like that was anything sinister with it at all.”

Six Questions On Party Links

I asked Eagling and Repetske six questions about their relationship with the Democratic Party and Republican Party and the role the Democratic Party played in the petition drive.

Both said that while Democrats were involved in the initial group of parents from which they emerged as candidates, they did not feel they were being recruited by the Democratic Party.

“I wasn’t recruited by anyone in particular,” Repetske said. “I just heard there were a group of parents and they were looking for people to possibly run, and I threw my name out there.”

“I would say, if I had to guess, over 75 percent of the number of those 40 or so people that were collecting signatures weren’t affiliated with any political party one way or the other,” Eagling said.

“The handful of people who are active members of the local Democratic Party, they’re active in local politics,” she continued. “They know what’s going on. They pay attention. They care about our community.”

“So, of course, those are some of the people that are volunteering their time,” Eagling said, “because, just as I was saying, the people who want to hear more discussion, they want to make sure that our leaders are held accountable for the decisions they are making.

“They want more choices on our ballot,” she said. “So, yea, those people are involved.”

Party Activity

Eagling and Repetske said they have never been active in the local Democratic Party or local Republican Party.

I noted that Gisler had turned in the petitions and asked “what role the Democratic Party or its leadership played in the petition drive?”

“I would say its just happenstance,” Eagling said. “The individuals who are motivated to be involved also are members of the community who care about our schools and are already active members in local politics and so naturally were lending help with signature collections as well.”

“Eric just happened to be free that morning to take the massive stack of papers to the Office,” she said.

“I think about a fourth, maybe even less than a quarter of the actual people gathering the petitions I think were kind of active Democrats,” Repetske said.

“Everybody else was just kind of regular citizens just trying to help out, either the Republican Party or kind of just nonpartisan people,” he added.

Repetske Disappointed

“I was disappointed in that,” Repetske said of Gisler turning in the petitions.

“I was like, why would he turn those in, it makes it look like it was a reach, trying to take a victory lap on it for the Democratic Party. I was like, it was important to be Independent,” Repetske said.

“I’ve been very up front with them, that I don’t think I’m going to be as like progressive or quite as liberal as probably they would choose in their ideal Democratic candidate.

“I don’t feel like any of these things are ever going to be an issue with the School Board,” Repetske said. “I think its just doing what’s best for the kids and supporting the school administration.”

Gisler’s Column: Eagling

I quoted from Gisler’s column, in which he used “we” twice to describe the petition drive and then signed the column as chair of the Oconee County Democratic Committee.

“That sure seems like the petition drive was the work of the Oconee County Democratic Party and that you are the candidates of the Democratic Party,” I said.

“Is that accurate?” I asked.

“I can’t speak for his choice of words, necessarily,” Eagling said. “What I will says is that when I went to submit to qualify as a candidate, I was given instructions to garner so many extra signatures just to be safe.”

“I think that you know potentially Eric’s use of we in that sense is we, the group of people who are collecting signatures,” she said.

“I would have to read it in its entirety,” she said, “but I don’t think its an indication of his role as the chairperson as we the Democratic Party other than we, the people who are attempting to get these signatures.”

Eagling said she was “completely independent” of the Democratic Party.

Eagling said it would have been much easier to run as either a Democrat or a Republican, but “that wouldn’t have been true to what I believe and what I want for our county.”

Gisler’s Column: Repetske

“I don’t really feel that’s accurate,” Repetske said of Gisler’s column. “I think he may have overreached a little bit with the comment. Or he just was intending we as in the larger parent group or the larger group of citizens that were gathering signatures.”

“There was a certain comradery to have 30 or 40 people out there trying to all do the same thing, working for one goal,” he said.

“And I’d like to think that’s what he meant by we,” he added. “I really couldn’t say anything about his intentions, though.”

“I’m pretty much making all my own campaign decisions,” Repetske said. “I’m running everything myself.”

“I wouldn’t have wanted to go in as a Democrat,” Repetske said.

Additional Comment: Eagling

I asked both Eagling and Repetske to offer final comments after I asked my 14 questions.

“So I’ve been asked the question a couple of times as to why am I running as an Independent,” Eagling said. “So far, nobody’s asked me, just why are you running?”

“I’m a native of this county, and someone with four kids who will be in Oconee County Schools,” she said. “At this time they are all under the age of 11. I have a vested interest in our school system.”

“And having experience first-hand and having watched as a parent the way that the Board of Education has operated,” she said, “I see some room for improvement and I see a need for greater transparency in their systems and in their decision-making as well as with the actual results of those decisions.”

“And I see a need for more opportunities for substantive input from individuals in the community,” Eagling said.

“And these are really the areas that I would like to be able to offer my own unique skills and abilities to help our county to really be able to serve each student the best that we can,” she said.

Additional Comment: Repetske

“Ideally, I’d just like to go to work and have some time with my family and raise my kids,” Repetske said when I asked him for additional comments. “But I feel like this is important.”

“I’ve got to put my name out there and maybe try to make some positive changes without being disruptive, obviously,” he added.

“I’ve lived in the area over 20 years. I went to Oconee Elementary, Middle School, High School. I went to the University of Georgia. So this area is like very important to me,” he said.

“When I decided to start a family, me and my wife decided to move here back to Oconee to raise our kids,” he said.

“So when I saw disruptive forces kind of coming in to the School Board situation, I felt like somebody needed to put their name out there,” he added. “I ran my mouth and the next thing I know I’m on the ballot, which is pretty incredible.”

Repetske is an operations manager at Athens Neurological Associates. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees in accounting and has three children in Oconee County Schools.

My Role As Collector

Separate from the group referenced by Repetske and Eagling, I contacted people with whom I have interacted in the county over the years as I have worked on this blog and asked if they would be willing to sign the petitions to put the two Independents on the ballot.

I also canvassed my own neighborhood. I live in Welbrook Farms off Daniells Bridge Road.

I am not affiliated with the Democratic or the Republican parties, and I supported the goal of having the two candidates on the ballot as Independents.

My only coordination with the group managing the petitions was through Davis, who is an attorney and a notary public.

The petitions had to be notarized before they could be submitted.

Republican Candidate Forum

Republican Party Chair Hurley has been very critical of the petition process and of Independent candidates.

In her Aug. 25 column in the Enterprise, she wrote that the petition “has been collected by hardcore Democrats” and “there is no vetting of an Independent candidate like there is when one runs as a major party candidate.”

Independents do not have primaries. The official two parties of Georgia, the Democrats an the Republicans, do hold primaries.

Despite these views, Hurley has invited Eagling and Repetske to a Board of Education Candidate Forum beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 26 at the Oconee County Civic Center, 2661 Hog Mountain Road.

Republican candidates Amy Parrish (incumbent Post 2), and Ryan Hammock (Post 3) as well as Repetske (Post 2) and Eagling (Post 3) have agreed to attend.

WGAU Radio personality Tim Bryant is scheduled to moderate.

Registration is required.

The Oconee County Democratic Party voted at its meeting on Aug. 18 not to provide any funds for Eagling and Repetske because they are running at Independents. It voted to support the three Democratic candidates for statehouse seats from Oconee County.


The video below combines the two interviews, showing first the interview with Eagling followed by the interview with Repetske.

The interview with Repetske begins at 20:08 in the video.

I have transcribed major parts of the interviews and used those transcriptions in the post above, but I recommend watching the full interviews.


Eric Gisler said...

I'd like to clarify that my use of "we" in my guest column on 8/17 was absolutely referring to the circulators that collected petition signatures, not the Democratic Committee.

The column did not include any reference to the Democratic Committee and I did not ask to be identified as the Chair of the Oconee Democratic Committee. That line was added by Michael Prochaska without my knowledge (though, I wouldn't have objected because it is true). My intent was only to shed light on exactly why rejected signatures were rejected, that is all.

As stated in this post, only about 10 of the ~40 circulators have ever had any affiliation whatsoever with the Democratic Committee. This was a non-partisan effort that originated with a concerned parents group on Facebook, not with the Committee.

To be clear, this comment is my opinion and does not speak for the Oconee County Democratic Committee. I need to get used to adding that disclaimer. :)

As always, thank you for your service to the community, Lee.

Michael Prochaska said...

Eric Gisler is correct that he did not sign the column as chairman of the Oconee Democratic Party. His role with the Democratic Party was something I felt was relevant and needed to be disclosed in his byline. That was an addition in the editing process. The same was done the next week with Katherine Hurley's byline, as she is the chair of the GOP.

- Michael Prochaska, Editor of TheOconee Enterprise